Being a Better Writer: Exploring Character Growth and Conflict

This post was originally written and posted April 14th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So last week I did something drastic. I was working on the first draft of my new novel, Colony, which I was about 25,000 words into, and something about it just wasn’t sitting right with me. At first, I assumed I was just psyching myself out, after all, it wasn’t bad, and I pushed on, figuring I could always change it later. But later, when I was about 40,000 words in, I was talking with visiting family about some of the other stuff I’ve written (specifically, getting their reactions to the pre-edit draft of Dead Silver they’d just finished enjoying) and I realized what the problem with Colony was. The character growth was almost non-existent. What I had were two characters who had already done most of their growing before the story started, and the third character who would widen the dynamic wouldn’t show up for another 15-20,000 words or more.

In short, while it was a decent story, the characters were falling flat because there wasn’t much to them that wasn’t readily apparent, and what growth they had was strictly presented as having already occurred. I was counting on that to hold the readers interest for the first 40,000 words or so (in addition to the plot and whatnot). Arguably it wasn’t that bad overall, but I didn’t want to settle for merely okay.

So I erased all but the 5,000 word prologue, around 30,000 words (and a week or so) worth of work, and started over, this time jumping the characters back in time to before they met, removing all the growth and dynamic they had when the original story started so that they would have all that growth ahead of them. It was, in essence, a complete reboot. The original story wasn’t bad, but it lacked one side of the two-sided coin that makes up character growth and conflict.

Character growth and conflict is the topic of today’s post, which makes it all the more fortuitous that I just rebuilt the beginning of my novel for reasons related to this, because now I really get to think about where I went wrong and where I went right. One of the more obvious areas I went wrong is that I didn’t develop the characters enough in my own head or on paper first. But even if I had, there still would have been a missing angle.

Now, what you’re about to read is merely the way I look at character growth and conflict, and I can guarantee you that plenty of other authors see this in an entirely different way, or perhaps use entirely different phrases and terms entirely. This is because short of a few basics, there isn’t one “school” of character development that educates young writers on writing this, and as such we all kind of find our own way, building our own systems from the bones, zombified flesh of other writers suggestions, and our own trial-and-error. In other words, it’s pretty much like most other specific elements of writing: easy to conceptualize, hard to define and explain.

So, to begin with, I view character growth as having two distinct types. The first is the growth of the character to the reader, and the second is the growth of the character to themselves.

The first is fairly straightforward. Character growth for the reader is when the reader learns something about the character. This can be a rote statement by a character of something that they already know about themselves, or a discovery/observation about something about another character. When we think of character growth, we often think of a character learning and changing, but this is an instance where nothings really changing except what the reader and the other characters know and perceive. For example, in Rise Steel already knows that his nephew has a tendency to make a mess of things without meaning to, and during the first scene where he and his nephew interact, he’s already prepared to catch a wayward bowl or recover a mixing spoon that’s been launched across the kitchen. His reactions and preparedness tells the reader something about both Steel’s character and his nephew’s, allowing theme to grow in the eyes of the reader. However, it’s nothing new or unique for the characters themselves.

We don’t often think about this kind of development, but it happens all the same. Every new book starts with a blank slate of characters to the reader, and those characters need to quickly take shape and “grow” for them to move things forward. In Harry Potter, Harry already knows that the Dursleys are terrible people. But the reader doesn’t, and a lot of those beginning chapters are full of little tidbits that don’t see the characters “growing” for anyone but the reader. They’re simply there to make the reader familiar with the characters, establish a baseline for who they are. As the story moves on, the other type of growth takes center stage, and this kind of growth takes a backstage, occurring less frequently but still occurring.

Another good way to think about this type of growth is as something I’ve discussed before: The character quirk. Quite often a lot of “growth” for the reader comes from the characters little habits or hobbies. The “quirks” that characters around them recognize and acknowledge, but only rarely directly address. The reader, however, does not know these little tidbits, and each one “grows” the character in their mind, making them into a more complete and real individual.

The second kind of character growth is the more classic type that most of us think of when we think about growth. This is where a character learns something about their own self. It may involve a change, a realization, or even form the crux of their character arc. I won’t go into as much detail here, because I’m going to cover this more in-depth in a moment, but suffice it to say that when we usually think of character growth, this is what we think of. The character is learning and developing on his own.

Alright, so those are rough approximations of the two directions I see character growth coming from (and bear in mind, these are both going the absolute technical route). Now let’s talk about the other driving force of our character growth: conflict.

Conflict is in an essence, the action/reaction event of a story. Either the character does something to cause an event to take place, or an event occurs that causes the character to act in some way. Action, reaction. You’ll find conflict everywhere you look in a story, regardless of what type of growth it causes for the characters. For example, in the above example with Harry Potter, there is conflict in the opening chapters. Most of it character based (Uncle Vernon says something that provokes a reaction from another member of the family) or event-based (the characters go to the zoo and Harry has a run-in with a snake). These little conflicts allow the characters to bounce off of one another, educating the reader about who they are and how they act.

Later on in the same book, the conflict begins to take a wider range. You have Harry’s interactions with Draco, events such as quidditch, or the series of puzzles guarding the Philosopher’s Stone, each of which either teaches you a little about the characters involved as well as has the characters discover some things about themselves. Sometimes a character might not recognize what they’ve done or how they’ve grown until afterwards (for example, the somewhat cowardly Neville standing up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione was a moment of character growth that even he didn’t recognize at the time, Dumbledore had to point it out for him to realize it).

Conflict in a book is really any elements of the story bouncing off of one another, and you can use them to both grow the character for the reader or let the character discover something about themselves. Or both at the same time. For example, in One Drink, both Rocke and Hawke are designed as “foils” to one another: They aren’t that similar, and often run a commentary back and forth between them that for them is playful banter, but serves to establish their characters for the reader. However, one point of conflict between them is slightly more serious and leads to the main character, Rocke, facing a realization about himself. As a result of this realization, he decides to make a conscious change in his life.

Ultimately, for a story to be successful, you’re going to want to have both types of growth. You’re going to want to have the reader learning about and understanding the characters. At the same time, the characters themselves must find a direction to move towards. They need conflict of some kind to drive them to make decisions, perhaps change, in some way that the reader can follow. This is why we tire of stories where the status-quo resets at the end of every chapter, book, or episode. In our own lives, when we do this, we feel unfulfilled. Crud, if not for the growth and change shown by the characters in the shows I watch, I probably wouldn’t be nearly as interested in them. But seeing a nervous character’s gradual efforts to not be as panicked when something goes wrong as a series moves on, or a shy character’s efforts to be a little less shy and more assertive, or even a very gung-ho character realizing that they can be both “awesome” and responsible at the same time, makes a show for me, especially as those changes continue to stack and effect the rest of the story. The characters are changing and growing, sometimes without even realizing it.

Now, by this point some of you might be holding your heads and going “ow, what?” And I’ll admit, I’m halfway there myself. Most of you probably aren’t interested in the technical stuff. You don’t want examples that others have pointed out for you before. What you want to know is how you can get your own characters to grow in your own stories.

So how?

Well, first of all, your reader needs to know the character. This is why that first growth step is so important. A character’s choice means far, far less—almost nothing in fact—if the reader doesn’t see the logic or the reasoning behind it. Your reader needs to know a bit about your character in order for a choice to be made important. Otherwise it has no impact.

Also, I’ve been using the term “growth” instead of “development.” Why? Because when a lot of young writers think of “development,” they think of a checklist of character attributes they can dump on a reader. You’ll see sentences like the following in a lot of novice fiction: Dave was a five-foot-four-inch, thirty-seven year old man with black hair, a scruffy beard, blue eyes, a somewhat out-of-shape physique that looked better from behind than in front, and he lived along in his solitary, first floor apartment that he rented because anything higher made him nervous.

Yuck. I feel tainted.

So, yeah, there’s character there, and there’s stuff about him, but it’s very, very straightforward, reading almost like a checklist. This is what most people think of as “development.” Don’t do this.

Instead, think of it as growth, like a sapling. Growth comes over time. Flesh your character out bit by bit. Even in a short story, all of the material from the above sentence could be split up over the first page, or even the first few paragraphs. Don’t bury your reader under an avalanche. Let the character grow naturally. And this is, of course, where the conflict comes in. For example, with the above character, you could bring up his fear of heights when he goes to his apartment. Or, when he visits a friend and has to go up an exterior flight of stairs, you could have him act very nervous and look down a lot, and later, when he goes home, have him “sigh in relief” that his apartment in on the ground floor instead of up high. Now the reader will understand that he’s afraid of heights for some reason, but in a much more natural method. As a bonus, we get some conflict (the character battling himself to move up the stairs) to make the presentation interesting.

Now, the character isn’t discovering anything about themselves since they’ve been to their friend’s home before, no less than I discovered about myself the tenth time I braved my own fear of heights to climb the tower at my local water park to ride a six-story drop of a waterslide. He, and I, already know the result and what we’ll do. But the reader doesn’t, so for them, the character grows.

Once you’ve established your character, let them continue to grow as your story moves on, both in growth for the reader, and growth for the character. Determine the direction you want your character to grow and then nudge the story in that direction. “Dave” may hear about a tragic, height-based accident from a friend, and then wonder how he would respond in a similar situation, only to face one later (this is VERY basic, but you get the idea). Introduce conflicts that will cause your character to react, even change. Once you and your reader understand who a character is, don’t be afraid to let that character interact with events and characters that will cause them to grow.

Or not. Some characters don’t change. Sometimes a character will proudly proclaim “I didn’t learn anything! I was right all along!” But we’ll learn about them (and see them grow) not from their changing, but from their affirmation that their stance was correct all along. Growth often isn’t a character changing. Sometimes it’s refusing to take a step backwards. We would hardly call a ten-year AA member falling off the horse when tempted “growth.” But that same character refusing to change their ways and standing firm is still affirming to a reader, and growth for the character if they’ve not experienced that level of temptation to revert before.

One last warning: Sometimes a character will take an unexpected direction. A step that you didn’t see or plan for, but one that is true to themselves.

You may have to let them. Even if that means changing the end of your story, or going a different direction than you expected. Often the new direction will be far superior. If not, then you may have to step back and make some changes if you want to keep the story on the path you’ve laid. That decision is up to you.

Now, can I get more specific with any of this? Well … no. Not really. Because whatever you write, it’s going to be your character, not mine, and you’re going to be the one to define their character and figure out exactly how to present them to the reader and what conflicts you want them to face. All I can do is offer anecdotes of my own or other author’s experiences, and those get old fast. Frankly put, you’re going to have to figure out how to apply a lot of this stuff on your own, with trial-and-error experience guiding you.

I wish you the best of luck.

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